Antigua has beautiful beaches, protected harbors, and history all within easy range of an international airport. The best time of year for yacht chartering in Antigua is from November to April.
The island of Antigua offers yachtsmen a glimpse of history along with beautiful beaches and everything else you’d expect from its rich tropical setting. With an international airport, it’s also the perfect launch point for an itinerary in the mid- and southern Caribbean.
The largest of the English-speaking Leeward Islands, Antigua boasts warm, steady breezes; a winding coastline dotted with safe harbors; shell-laden beaches and a nearly unbroken coral reef. It offers both tranquil settings and exciting nightlife. Its quieter sister, Barbuda, located to the north, is a natural haven for sealife and birds.
English Harbour in Antigua is the site of the only working Georgian dockyard in the world. Admiral Nelson once hid his fleet in the harbor; today, Nelson’s Dockyard is an active yachting center offering berths from 30 meters up, and also features a museum dedicated to its namesake. Other popular marinas on the island include Jolly Harbor Marina, Catamaran Marina, Falmouth Harbour and Antigua Yacht Club.
While all types of charter boats are available here, both bareboat and crewed, thanks to the constant northeast tradewinds, Antigua and Barbuda are especially popular with sailors. Antigua Sailing Week in April is one of the largest sailing regattas in the world.
Yachts for charter in Antigua.
One of the reasons why chartering in the Caribbean is so popular is the weather, especially in winter, when sailors from northern climes delight in the balmy breezes and warm temperatures. The (mostly) reliable trade winds blow between 15 and 25 knots from the northeast, and a steady temperature in the low to mid 80s provide great sailing and comfortable nights.
The trade winds originate off the coast of Africa, and have been known to carry dust from the Sahara desert all the way across the southern North Atlantic to the Caribbean Islands. They have a huge impact on the Caribbean Islands from Hispaniola all the way down to the ABC’s (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao), and their influence affects different parts of the Caribbean in different ways. Because they are further south, the Windward Islands (Dominica, Grenada, Martinique, and St. Vincent and The Grenadines) see milder temperatures during winter than the Leeward Islands (Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Nevis, Saba, Sint Maarten/St. Martin, St. Kitts and Nevis). The Windwards also have a more reliable breeze.
With their more northerly location, the Leeward Islands are more influenced by fronts drifting down from the mainland U.S., and can be slightly cooler and less windy, especially in the winter months. Because the trades are so reliable other effects can be noted as well. On mountainous islands the warm air is shunted up into cooler air, which produces rain. On islands such as Dominica, Nevis, and St. Lucia rain forests can be found, especially on their windward sides.
One drawback to chartering in winter can be the sheer number of fellow charterers who have all decided the same thing; that two weeks in the BVI in January is far better than two weeks in Chicago. Prices are higher, reservations are more difficult to get, and popular destinations are overcrowded.
Is there another time of year when the Caribbean is less crowded, less expensive, but still delightful? The simple answer is yes, and that time is in the summer, though you need to plan carefully so you don’t end up hunkered down in a hotel room watching palm trees get blown down and praying the power stays on as a hurricane roars overhead.
The two main worries of off-season in the Caribbean are hurricanes and the rainy season. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, with the most active period running from mid August through the end of October. From May to July and October through December, the odds are definitely with you.
The hurricane probability table shown at left reveals the odds for individual islands. The best odds for a major hurricane strike in any given year in the Caribbean belongs to Antigua, which has a 6.7-percent chance. The lowest is Bonaire, with a 0.6-percent chance. Puerto Rico rings in at 4.2-percent, with the USVI scoring a 5.9-percent. In contrast, Miami scores an impressive 11.1-percent, and Cape Hatteras checks in with a 5.3-percent. See the rest of the list of hurricane probabilities for the continental USA.
Another way to virtually assure that hurricanes won’t mess with your charter, even at the height of the season, is to head “down island,” to islands such as Aruba, Curacao, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and Barbados. Those lucky few who live on boats in the Caribbean year round often head to those islands in hurricane season for that very reason.
The rainiest months of the year are May to June and September to October, but again, location is everything. The ocean temperature is cooler in the southern parts of the Caribbean due to upwelling (in which cold water rises to the surface as the wind pushes the warmer water south and west) and this helps prevent cloud formation, which means less rain and less likelihood of hurricane activity. The Caribbean islands which most benefit from this are Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao.
A common misconception is the summer temperatures, which one would imagine would be much hotter than those in winter. But thankfully that’s not the case, and that, again, is due to those oh-so-helpful trade winds. The average temperature in Antigua in January is 83 degrees, but in August it’s only 88. The chance of seeing 100-degree temperatures is far more likely in the mainland U.S. than it is in the Caribbean, where such temperatures are mostly unheard of.
I’ve successfully delivered boats across the Caribbean Basin from Florida to Panama in August, from Tortola to New England in September, and from Sint Maarten to Panama in June, all safely and without worries, thanks to good forecasting and a firm grasp of the odds.
For more information about the Caribbean, or to find a yacht to charter, visit the YachtWorldCharters.com Caribbean page.
Antigua is home to not one but two large-scale stadiums for cricket, a sport taken as seriously in the Caribbean as soccer/football is taken in Europe. The Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium is a $60-million facility built in 2007 for Cricket World Cup matches, and today it regularly hosts the West Indies team.
Also on the island is Stanford Cricket Ground, which promotes shorter cricket matches known as Twenty 20. These are no small shakes, either; in 2008, the Stanford facility awarded a $20-million prize in a championship match.
Another location on Antigua that draws big crowds is Shirley Heights. It’s an honor on Antigua to earn a spot in the superb steel-drum band that starts the party just before sundown every Sunday and keeps it going well into the night. Guests dance the night away with outstanding views across the island, including a panorama of historic Falmouth and English Harbours, which are always dotted with large yachts. A barbecue is part of the fun, too, and of course the rum punch flows.
Frigate Bird Sanctuary, Barbuda
On Barbuda, one of the most interesting stops is the Frigate Bird Sanctuary, which is accessible only by boat. The most interesting time of year to visit is during autumn, when the frigate birds court. The males stand onshore and inflate the massive red pouches attached to their necks, straining their heads back as far as they can to make the pouches look as big and impressive as possible. The female frigates, meanwhile, circle above and choose their mates based on what they see from the sky. It’s a ritual worthy of the mile-high moniker, for sure.
On both islands, you can find international restaurants that cater to tourists in the resorts, but the best food is in the local eateries that serve conch fritters, jerk chicken, and other Caribbean favorites. Lobster is always fresh and delicious, and a good goat roti can easily help you forget about chicken for a few weeks. Also look for pumpkin and squash dishes, as both vegetables are grown on the island and have a nutty quality that can be hard to find in more northern climates. Wash it all down with a Ting—a grapefruit-infused version of lemon-lime soda that is a refreshing Caribbean specialty.
Arriving in Antigua and Barbuda is much like arriving in any other port of call: You have 24 hours to clear Customs, including providing forms that can be downloaded prior to arrival. Cruising permits are required here along with regular port fees. Also expect to pay national park fees in popular Antigua locations such as Falmouth Harbour and English Harbour, including Nelson’s Dockyard (where the Customs houses for both harbors are located).
These locations in Antigua’s southeast are good spots to begin a charter, as English Harbour offers a straightforward entrance while Falmouth Harbour’s entrance is clearly marked with buoys. Keep red to starboard on entry and you’ll do just fine. These harbors are also yachtie havens, with plenty of sailors and megayacht crew to chat with about weather, favorite anchorages, and the like. Spend a day milling about the cafés and bars, and you’ll have more information in hand than any cruising guide could ever offer.
Cruising to the west from English or Falmouth Harbour, if you prefer to tie up at night and are willing to pay for services, you can set a waypoint for Jolly Harbour Marina. It’s the newest facility on the island and, as such, offers modern shopping, restaurants, tennis, and golf. A boatyard with a 70-ton Travelift is available for repairs and other work as needed, and a supermarket and liquor store cater to cruising yachts.
For even less-expensive supplies, including fuel and water, you can continue a bit farther north along Antigua’s west coast and instead stop at St. John’s—but keep in mind it is the island’s capital and often is crammed with cruise-ship tourists. They run on a regular schedule and can be avoided with a little research, but when they are in port, they dominate the local scene.
By the time you reach St. John’s, you will have circumnavigated almost half of Antigua—passing a number of inviting bays and beaches along the way. You can take as much or as little time as you like making your way to this point, anchoring for an afternoon or a few days in each one. There are enough nooks in the shoreline that you should be able to find solitude on most days as well as overnight whenever you’d like, almost always protected from weather. Listen to the daily forecast on Channel 6 at 0900 Monday through Friday (and occasionally on weekends).
St. John’s to Barbuda
From St. John’s, it’s about 30 nautical miles north to the island of Barbuda. The distance makes Barbuda inviting on a map, but in reality, the approach has scuttled hundreds of boats into wrecks. Barbuda is so flat that it can be hard to make out the contour of the land until you are right on top of the reefs. Up-to-date-charts and a reliable depthfinder will go a long way towards ensuring safe arrival. Also try to arrive from Antigua before noon, when the sun is either behind you or directly overhead to make the most dangerous reefs easier to see.
Much of Barbuda is still as nature created it, with Coddrington being the island’s sole town. It is home to fewer than 1,000 permanent residents. A single-runway airport is here, along with a few bed-and-breakfasts and the nearby Lighthouse Bay Resort. The resort offers spa services, horseback riding, and an open-air beachfront restaurant that serves gourmet cuisine in island style (expect some darn fine lobster).
The easiest way to reach Coddrington is via dinghy. You can anchor in Low Bay, carry your dinghy across Palm Beach to the lagoon, and then cruise across the lagoon to town. Basic supplies are usually available here in terms of galley provisions, and a handful of eateries offer the usual island cuisine such as conch and lobster. In season, you can also order deer, land turtle, and land crabs off the specials menus. A few bars offer beers and liquors, and at least one turns into a discotheque some nights.
After Coddrington, head just a few miles north up Barbuda’s west coast to the Frigate Bird Sanctuary, which is accessible only by boat along Eleven Mile Beach. Birdwatchers will be enchanted by more than 170 species of birds including more than 5,000 frigates, whose colorful mating rituals are on display each autumn. During any season, the frigates put on a show with their impressive four- to five-foot wingspans. They’re known as man-o-war birds because they use their size to overpower weaker birds in midair, stealing whatever food they may have. Watching an attack is almost like watching an air show, with nature handling the choreography.
Return to Antigua
You can circumnavigate the rest of Barbuda on your way back to Gravenors Bay, which is at the southernmost tip and makes an easy launch waypoint for returning to Antigua. Or, simply set a return course south from the sanctuary to Fitches Creek Bay or Parham Harbour on Antigua’s northeast side. If you can make it as far south as Nonsuch Bay, you’ll be in the company of megayachts that frequent the area as well as nearby Green Island, which is nice for day picnics and swimming. Try to avoid the tour boats at the height of the afternoon. Mornings and early evenings are the quietest here.
Green Island puts you within easy cruising distance of Willoughby Bay. If you’re itching to get off the boat, this is a good and private spot with charming villas. The area is generally regarded as one of the safest on the island thanks to the presence of Willoughby Bay Resort, an upscale facility that caters to high-finance professionals with a full-scale business center including a stock-trading floor.
The next large harbors west of Willoughby Bay are English and Falmouth Harbours—bringing your journey around Antigua and Barbuda full circle. If you missed it during arrival, spend a night having dinner at The Inn at English Harbour. Its hilltop gourmet restaurant is a little pricey, but the views are priceless, and you’ll have earned both after your circumnavigation of Antigua and Barbuda.